Let the Next Round of Games Begin

In the Paralympics, athletes with disabilities compete to win - and to break down stereotypes

Kathleen Rose Winter played basketball during the 1980s, became a world champion weightlifter in 1991, and competed in track-and-field events in Barcelona's summer Games in 1992. Now Ms. Winter is getting ready to compete in fencing in Atlanta, and, like the other sports she's participated in, she'll do it in a wheelchair.

Winter is one of 3,500 athletes from around the world who will go for the gold during the Paralympics, which start Aug. 14 and run through Aug. 25.

In these games, winning a medal is often a secondary goal for athletes. First and foremost Olympiads hope these Paralympics - even more than others that have come before them - will help change how the world perceives people with disabilities.

"With success here, I think we'll make an incredible leap forward for the [disabled] movement, and establish the Paralympics as truly what it is - one of the major sporting events in the world," says Andrew Fleming, president of the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee.

Games make strides

The athletes and organizers have reason to pin so much hope on these Paralympics. Atlanta will mark a number of firsts for the Games, including the first time they will be broadcast on American television, the first to be funded by corporate sponsorships, and the first to charge for tickets.

Supporters say these steps represent a significant accomplishment toward better recognition of disabled sports, but they acknowledge that they still have a long way to go. "We are where women's sports were 26 years ago before the passage of Title IX," says Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA in Rockville, Md.

Before the passage of Title IX, a federal law mandating that women's sports be funded on par with men's at high school and college levels, women's sports "weren't recognized as commercially viable, and there wasn't a lot of support for them," Mr. Bauer says.

"This Olympics brought full circle the final coming of age of the women's sports movement, and I would love to know that in 26 years we're going to be where they are now. These are some of the finest athletes in the world."

Indeed, many Paralympic records are within seconds of their Olympic counterparts. Ajibola Adoye, an arm amputee from Nigeria, has run the men's 100 meters in 10.72 seconds; Carl Lewis's fastest Olympic time is 9.86. Florence Griffith Joyner set an Olympic record of 21.34 seconds for the women's 200 meters; Marla Runyan of the US set a Paralympic record of 25.31 seconds. Ms. Runyan is visually impaired.

In Atlanta, athletes aged 14 to 60 will compete, and 380 will represent the US. CBS and SportSouth, a cable channel, will provide American coverage. That marks a change from the Paralympics in Barcelona, which had 35 film crews but none from the US.

The Paralympics started in Rome in 1960 and have been held after each summer and winter Games since, usually in the Olympic host city. Over the 10-day period here, 127 nations, 12,000 volunteers, and an estimated 1.3 million spectators will gather to see athletes with physical disabilities participate in 17 sports, including track and field, swimming, and basketball.

More popular overseas

These Games traditionally have been more popular in countries other than the US. One reason is that Europe and other nations are more interested in track and swimming - sports that Paralympic athletes participate in more than in popular US games such as football and baseball. So Paralympic athletes in other countries have enjoyed greater public exposure, Mr. Fleming says.

Outside the US, the Paralympics are also given more governmental support and have been more closely aligned with the Olympics. But that's changing as the International Olympic Committee gives the Games more attention and resources.

While the Paralympics have been staged for 36 years, they have advanced most significantly over the past eight. "We often count 1988 in Seoul as the start of the modern Paralympic era, and Barcelona took it to the next level," Fleming says.

Seoul incorporated the Paralympics into the overall celebration of the Olympics, including providing opening and closing ceremonies and allowing athletes to use the same stadium. "Barcelona demonstrated the public would really come out and support the Games. They had 1.5 million spectators and 46 standing-room-only events," Fleming says.

Some athletes already notice signs of progress in Atlanta, even when it comes to the US uniforms, which some claim were shoddy and second-rate in Barcelona. "Even something so minute as wearing the same hats as the athletes in July wore in their parade is important," Winter says.

"Everyone who is going to be in Atlanta - we're just a group of athletes, not special athletes, but normal people," she says. "We want to be held up to the same standards."

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